Kingsblood Royal, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 14

He crossed the lobby of his hotel in Minneapolis with his eyes rigidly held on the black-and-white marble of the floor, irritably noting that it WAS black and white, careful as a drunk who betrays himself by being too careful in his gait. He was wondering who might be staring at him, suspecting the Negro in him. Wilbur Feathering, who was a food-dealer in Grand Republic but who had been born in Mississippi, frequently asserted that he could catch any “Nigra” who passed for white, even if he was but a sixty-fourth black. If Wilbur did detect it, he would be nasty about it.

Right in the center of the lobby he wanted to stop and look at his hands. He remembered hearing that a Negro of any degree, though pale of face as Narcissus, is betrayed by the blue halfmoons of his fingernails. He wildly wanted to examine them. But he kept his arms rigidly down beside him (so that people did wonder at his angry stiffness and did stare at him) and marched into the elevator. He managed, with what he felt to be the most ingenious casualness, to prop himself with his hand against the side of the cage, and so to look at his nails.

No! The halfmoons were as clear as Biddy’s.

— But I know now how a Negro who has just passed must feel all the time, when he’s staying at a hotel like this: hoping that none of these high-and-mighty traveling men will notice him and ask the manager to throw him out. Does it keep up? All the time?

In the vast hidden lore of Being a Negro which he was to con, Neil was to learn that in many Northern states, including his own, there is a “civil rights law” which forbids the exclusion of Negroes and members of the other non-country-club races from hotels, restaurants, theaters, and that this law worked fully as well as had national prohibition.

White hotel guests snorted, “Why can’t these niggers stay where they’re wanted, among their own people, and not come horning in where they don’t belong?” These monitors did not explain how a Negro, arriving in a strange city at midnight, was to find out precisely where he was wanted. Whenever they had been contaminated and almost destroyed by the presence of a Negro sleeping two hundred feet away, they threatened the hotel manager, who assumed that he had to earn a living and therefore devised a technique of treating the Negroes with nerve-freezing civility and with evasiveness about “accommodations.”

Even on this, his first night of being a Negro, Neil knew that the night assistant-manager of the hotel might telephone up, “I’m terribly sorry, sir, but we find that the room we gave you is reserved.”

He knew it already. He knew it more sensitively and acutely than he had ever known any of the complex etiquette of being an officer-and-gentleman.

He looked bulky enough and straight-shouldered enough in the refuge of his hotel room, but he felt bent and cowering as he listened for the telephone. He did not hear it, yet he heard it a hundred times.

And if he did not belong in this hotel, he thought, he would be no more welcome on the Pullman Borup. They could not arrest him for taking it, but he would not again be able to patronize genially the black Mac, who was now his uncle and his superior. In his hazardous future, it might be he who would hope for a condescending dollar from Mac.

He belonged with the other lepers in a day-coach — in a Southern jimcrow day-coach, foul and broken, so that his simian odor might not offend the delicate white nostrils of Curtiss Havock.

All this he thought, but he did not dare think of going back to Vestal and telling her that he had given her a Negro daughter.

He had planned to get his hair cut at the Swanson–Grand barbershop, this late afternoon.

He sat at the small desk in his room, tapping his teeth with his fingernail, occasionally looking suddenly at that nail again, a study in brooding. Whether or not he needed a haircut to the point of social peril, he had to go down to the shop, as a matter of manliness. He wasn’t going to let any barber jimcrow HIM! He was a citizen and a guest; he paid his taxes and his hotel bills; he had as much right to be served in a barbershop as any white man —

He stood up wrathfully, but the wrath was against himself.

— Now for God’s sake, Kingsblood, haven’t you got enough real trouble in being a Negro, and having to tell Vestal, without making up imaginary troubles? That Svenska barber is no more likely to treat you as colored than anybody else ever has, these thirty-one years! Quit acting like a white boy trying to pretend to be a Negro. You ARE Negro, all right, AND Chippewa, AND West Indian spig, and you don’t have to pretend. Funny, though, if I’m being too imaginative. Always thought I was too matter-of-fact. Everybody thought so.

— It couldn’t be, could it, that what I needed, what Grand Republic needs, is a good dash of sun-warmed black blood?

He found a streak of humor in the astonishing collapse of everything that had been Neil Kingsblood; in noting that a black boy like himself could never conceivably be a banker, a golf-club member, an army captain, husband of the secure and placid Vestal, son of a Scotch-porridge dentist, intimate of the arrogant Major Rodney Aldwick. Suddenly he was nothing that he was, only he still was, and what he was, he did not know.

That the #3 barber in the Swanson–Grand Salon de Coiffeur would actually treat Mr. Kingsblood just as he always HAD treated Mr. Kingsblood was so obvious that Neil scarcely noticed that while he was still wondering whether #3 would refuse to cut his hair, #3 was already contentedly cutting it. But even in the soporific routine of the barber’s shears and cool, damp hands, Neil could not ease his disquiet.

The head-barber, the girl cashier, the Negro bootblack, his #3 barber — had they guessed that he was a Negro, had they known it for years? Were they waiting for the proper time to threaten him, to blackmail him — waiting, lurking, laughing at him?

“Mighty hard to cut that curly hair of yours smooth, Captain,” said the barber.

Now what was he referring to? Curly hair. Kinky hair. Negro wool.

Was his barber, standing back of him, winking at the barber at the next chair? Why had he yanked a lock of hair that way? Was the inconceivable social night already drawing in, and the black winter of blackness?

With the most itching carefulness, Neil crept one hand out from under the drab sheet covering him, scratched his nose, let the hand drop into his lap, and so was able to study his nails again. Was it this mercury vapor light, or was there really a blue tinge in the half moons?

He wanted to jump from the chair, flee to his safe room — no, flee to yet-unknown Negro friends who would sympathize with him, hide him, protect him.

It was no elegant green-and-ivory barber chair but the electric chair from which he was finally released. In his room, he quivered:

— Vestal’s always loved to run her fingers through my hair. Will she, if she finds out what kind of hair it is? Same color as my dad’s used to be, but his isn’t curly. What would Vestal think? She mustn’t find out, ever.

He thought constantly of new things, pleasant and customary, from which his status as Negro might bar him: Biddy’s adoration. The lordly Federal Club. Dances and stag-drinking at the Heather Country Club, where once he had been chairman of the Bengali pool tournament. His college fraternity. His career in the bank. His friendship with Major Rodney Aldwick.

He repeated a slice of English doggerel that Rod Aldwick used to quote with unction:

All the white man’s memories:

Hearths at eventide,

The twinkling lights of Christmas nights

And our high Imperial pride.

What had been his own picture, his own observations, of the Negroes?

— Come on, you high Imperial white man, what are we? Let’s have it, Mister!

— Well, the Negroes are all sullen and treacherous, like Belfreda.

— Nonsense! Mac the porter isn’t and I’m not and I’m no longer so sure about Belfreda.

— They’re all black, flat-nosed, puff-lipped.

He went to the mirror, and laughed.

— What a lot I used to know that I didn’t know! What a clack-mouthed parrot I was! Quoting that fool of a Georgia doctor. Negroes not quite human, eh? Kingsblood, Congoblood, you deserve anything you get — if it’s bad enough. I think God turned me black to save my soul, if I have any beyond ledgers and college yells. I’ve got to say, “You’re as blind and mean and ignorant as a white man,” and that’s a tough thing to take, even from myself.

— Oh, don’t be so prejudiced against the white people. No doubt there’s a lot of them who would be just as good as anybody else, if they had my chance of redemption.

— Captain, aren’t you kind of overdoing your glee in becoming a colored boy?

— Okay. I am.

Under a decayed newspaper in the desk he found one sheet of Swanson–Grand letter-paper, with a half-tone of the hotel and the name of the proprietor in flourishing 1890 type, but with practically no space for writing, an accomplishment apparently not expected of the guests. He turned it over, took out his bankerish gold-mounted fountain pen, and drew up an altogether bankerish table of one branch of his ancestors:

Xavier Pic, possible French and Spanish elements but counts as 100% Negro

Sidonie, his daughter, who married Louis Payzold, was 1/2 Chippewa and 1/2 Negro

Alexandre Payzold, their son, Gramma Julie’s father, 1/4 Negro

My Grandmother, Julie Saxinar, an octoroon, 1/8 Negro

Her daughter, my mother, 1/16 Negro

Myself, 1/32 Negro

Biddy, 1/64 Negro

— Well, I finally do have something interesting about our royal royal ancestry to report to Dad!

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38